Tag Archives: philosophy

Sucky Things You’d Rather Not Think About

Steve Martin with balloons on his head

Steve Martin used to say “I learned enough philosophy in college to mess me up for the rest of my life.”

There’s a bit of truth to that. Philosophy — the real stuff, not the stuff you learn mostly in college today — makes you deal with a lot of things you’d rather not.

Your death is imminent. No way around that. In the big scheme of things, you’re not even an ant. In fact, you exist for such a vanishingly-small amount of time and have such a tiny impact on anything that for all intents and purposes you don’t exist at all. The question shouldn’t be “How can I really know the rest of the universe exists?” The real question is more like “How does the universe really know I exist?”

Science is just a bunch of guesses. Yes, we’ve gotten really good at guessing, but for all we know we’re just getting better at describing the workings of the computer simulation we all live inside of. We can do amazing things by empirically observing things, noting patterns, creating possible rules, and testing those rules. Science rocks. But there’s always the chance we didn’t observe enough, that our model is lacking fidelity and we just don’t know. There were no black swans — until somebody saw a black swan. Newton’s laws worked awesomely well — until they stopped working. Induction, the idea that if we see something over and over again we can infer a general pattern, works until it does not work. The turkey thinks the farmer is a friend and always brings food — until the day he shows up with a hatchet. Mars had canals, hell they were empirically observed by multiple scientists, until we realized we were just looking at the backs of our own eyeballs.

Everything really cool is always going to be 20 years away — right up until the day you die. Twenty years is about the size of something that looks possible, yet has so many problems we’re not really sure how long it will take. So when people ask experts how long it’s going to be until some super-cool new thing comes out, the answer more than likely will be “20 years.” One day you’ll be dying of disease X and read that a cure for disease X is only 20 years off. That’s probably going to suck a lot.

Trans-humanism is going to take a lot longer than people think. On one hand, we’re already at the singularity: people are integrated with machines to a point right now where only twenty years ago it would have been a miracle. The folks from twenty years ago could not have predicted how all the technology is starting to interact with each other. On the other hand we can get carried away with this very easily. To take the idea of a singularity to it’s most extreme level, to say that some mystical far-out world will come into existence where literally everything will be possible? Not so much. Even if the technology races ahead, we are in for a long struggle as the human side of the changing world adapts. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. Odds are we end up with a machine in a few decades that has the horsepower of a human mind; and then we abuse it or fight over it for years afterwards. We have no history of welcoming new intelligent species with open arms. Don’t expect that to change.

Science will never be able to transfer your mind into a machine. Yes, maybe one day in the distant future some miracle will happen where all of your mind can be analyzed and copied, but that will only be a copy. The “real” you will die. There will just be a twin that’s born with everything about you. You won’t magically pop over from one head to the other. Yes, “you” might continue, but only in the sense that a new person begins that’s just like you — a super twin — while you die. Not a pleasant thing to look forward to. However the future works out, the wetware that exists inside your skull is subject to the limitations of being a biological device. Not going to change. Ever.

The religious people were right all along. Given all this uncertainty and almost pointless nature of existence, the only rational course of action is to creatively speculate on what values you want for your life and why. Then make decisions every day based on that creative speculation. Remember that the driver of all religions is each individual having to make value decisions based on incomplete information. This is a good thing and, in fact, the only thing you really have. Don’t confuse that with religion in the sense of an organized social structure. I’m not saying join a church, or start believing in a deity (although many religions have rather vague deities which sound a lot more like “the universe” or “nature” than anything else.) The existentialists argue that any formal, self-consistent religious structure is necessarily broken — God is dead — not that the essence of religion, finding meaning by artistically living an authentic life, doesn’t work. Living life is an art, based in your own creative speculative imaginings of what the universe expects of you. You can start with somebody else’s imagination of how it all fits together, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to take ownership of this — complete with all of the doubts that you might have made the wrong choice.

While these things are indeed sucky, they are also reality, which means we might as well get used to them. After all, there are some pretty good things too. You live at the pinnacle of modern thought. Billions of years of evolution has happened to put you exactly where you are today. Nobody else has lived in a time where lifespan is so extended, living is so easy, and people from all over the world are so connected. The poorest person in the United States has things that Louis XIV could have never imagined.

But you can’t experience the total awesomeness of life unless you own the bad parts too. It’s been my experience that you have to absorb these sucky things — take them in and let them wash over you — in order to truly move past them and enjoy life. Otherwise they always seem to be nagging at your heels. You can live in total denial of reality, or you can push through these sucky things to the other side. Being in the middle is unpleasant. Yeah, college can screw you up for the rest of your life. You can end up thinking nothing is true and everything is pointless. But that should only be a pit-stop on the way to the “dancing above the void” that marks a truly meaningful and enjoyed life.

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Don’t Know Much

I’m having lunch with my oldest son today. He turned 25 this year! It was a big birthday for him, and a big moment for me too.

Looking over the last 25 years, I can’t help but try to figure out what’s changed. Am I the same guy I was at 21? Of course not.

A lot has changed. I think one of the most interesting changes has been in the last five years. I’ve decided I don’t know very much.

Up until then, I studied a lot, learned as much as I could about something, then dove in and took charge. In the last year or two, however, as my startups start taking off and I finish up my agile/kanban book, looking back over all of it, I realize how little I actually know.

Please don’t think I have a lack of self-confidence: I’m still the arrogant asshole I always was. But now I don’t automatically assume that the world is the way I suppose it to be. Looking at dozens of teams get more productive — and some fail — has made me rethink what it means to construct success.

In the western world, many of us are model-builders. Give us the specs, the shape of the system in question, and we will build a mental model that emulates it. Then we work the model to see what happens. If that works, we move to the real world.

As an example, if you were coding a large client-server system in the 2000s, the first thing you should do is talk about your domain model — which concepts are important enough to be in the system and which aren’t. Based on that discussion, identifying concepts and their relationships, you could continue down the path of development.

Or take playing a video game. As we play, we construct a mental model of how things work. Pull that lever there and the door opens. Do these three things in order and you can do the forth, and so on. As our mental model gets more detailed, we are able to play the game better. Life, it seems, is just a series of models that we learn to some degree of fidelity and then master.

All of this is true, but as I continue writing my book and looking back on teams I have led or coached, it occurs to me that successful teams were always rebuilding models, not elaborating even more on pre-existing ones.

If you ever worked in a successful startup, you’ve seen project managers do what comes natural to them: take what works best from each project and combine it into a master “cheat sheet” of how good projects should operate. I have seen this several times. These are all well-meaning efforts, but in the end they all fail. They hurt more than they help.


I think it’s because the human mind naturally models way far beyond anything that might be actually true. We can see a butterfly in a meadow in the morning and have a 3-page poem dedicated to it by lunch. Or — a much likelier scenario — we can observe 3 or 4 projects that do well, identify commonalities, then extrapolate that to the universe of projects.

But it’s not just technology teams, that’s the kicker. We all do this, and we do it in every part of our life, whether we realize it or not. It was learning about startups that taught this to me. You’ll have an idea, try to sit around and decide if it’s a “good” idea, then, based on that judgment, elaborate on it some more. Maybe you write some code. Maybe, if you’re new to this, you write a lot of code. Perfect code. Use a bunch of TDD and have a rock-solid architecture and implementation. Make sure you’re able to scale. Pick the best problem to solve. Use a data-driven implementation. Pick the right corporate structure. Hire a lawyer.

How can I say this nicely? There are a thousand things you can do in a startup that don’t amount to jack shit. There are very few things that are important. All of them directly relate to getting customers.

You see, it’s easier for us — it’s more natural for us — to construct these models and flesh them out, turn them into reality — than it is to actually see the real world. The real world wants an iPod app that farts when you push a button. You and I may want a super-colossal app that ends world hunger, but nobody else will buy or use what we make, so in the end it doesn’t matter. But — and here’s the crazy part — instead of adjusting our work habits to try to continually find out what the world wants, instead we create more and more complex models or what we think they should want. We love models a hell of a lot more than we love feedback.

That’s why I think being stupid and humble is probably the best attitude for having a startup. I don’t know what people want, I actively resist learning, and the best I can do is struggle with that truth.

The same probably goes for the rest of life as well, although most of us (including me) are uncomfortable looking at it like that.

I don’t know much.

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Causes for Drop in U.S. Credit Rating

Here’s the systemic problem, which has nothing to do with Treasury Bills, tax structures, or political parties.

Phases of political maturity:

1) Apathy. Political parties are like football teams. You pick one and they’re your guys. You root for them no matter what. If anything, there might be something wrong about folks who take these things too seriously.

2) Emotion. The other political party is the devil. They are out to destroy America.

3) Enlightenment. The other party is just full of people like me. There are some smart

folks, but the problem is that they have all the wrong incentives and conclusions.

4) Understanding. Gee, there are those same bad conclusions and wrong incentives in my favorite party too. Ergo, parties don’t matter. There are smart people everywhere. When the system fails, it’s a problem of the system, not of the people or parties.

The problem in the U.S. is that the majority of folks are in stage 1 or 2 when we need them to be in 4. So when deep structural conversations come along, they’re still either rooting for their team or blaming the other guys, when they should be talking about principles that need to be changed for the entire system to work better, no matter what the actual goals of any party.

There is another problem that helps create deadlock — an understanding of where the money comes from. I think many folks view the economy as something the government grows so that it can harvest money in the form of taxes. (This is not a Keynesian discussion, simply a discussion about taxes in general.) Other folks view the government as something the economy grows in order to keep it functioning. These are two deeply conflicting world-views. I’m not sure you’ll ever reconcile them. Some put trading first and sharing second. Many put sharing first and trading second. These two camps have come to demonize the others, sadly. (Which takes us back to the observation above)

For this problem to be solved, we need to give up on arguing specific issues or philosophical positions and instead talk about fixing structures so that the budget stays balanced long-term no matter who is in power or what their priorities are. Imagine a world in which the most bizarre and extreme liberal policies could come true. Make the system work in that scenario. Then imagine a world in which the most bizarre and extreme conservative policies could come true. Make the system work in that scenario. This is a meta conversation, the kind the framers had. I am very doubtful there is anyone around today in power that can handle it. All of the people in political power got that way by playing ideological and rhetorical games and by being fiercely loyal to their party. It’s the exact opposite qualifications that we need in folks for actually fixing anything. Not a happy outlook.

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The Hell with Happiness

Sometimes you just feel one of those old-cranky-guy-posts coming on.

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a bit of time reading and thinking about happiness. I’ve read a couple of books, one of which was “How Pleasure Works“. I’ve read a couple of WSJ articles, and participated in a couple of discussions on various boards.

Plus I’m a happy guy! Except for today, when I’m a bit cranky.

For anybody who has studied the subject, happiness is about experiences, social interaction, and expanding your horizons. It’s not about possessions or status — although we seem to keep thinking it is.

What’s bugging me is the increasing number of people who seem to chase happiness just for the purpose of being happy. And that’s crap.

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i do not exist

Stephen Hawking has convinced me I do not exist.

In his new book, Hawking omits all references to “God”, saying he’s not needed any more. He also takes some jabs at philosophy.

Well them be fighting words, Stephen.

I’ve been toying around lately with the idea of fundamentalist agnosticism — that there is no way we can know whether a concept called “God” exists or not, and we can never know. That this deep state of unknowing is a necessary condition for a balanced life.

As part of that, it also occurred to me that i do not exist.

Think about it: in the grand scheme of things i am but one person in billions, living for a flash of an instant on a fairly young rock that’s already hurdled billions of times around its star and will hurdle billions of more time. I might get to see a hundred of such voyages. This rock is most likely one of trillions of such rocks — each of them perhaps supporting billions of other beings.

i’m not trying to be morose, just looking at things objectively. A hundred years from now you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who knew me. A thousand years from now anything that i might do will be eaten away by the sands of time. Even if i were the greatest person alive — even if I were the greatest person that ever lived — ten thousand years from now i am invisible. And i and not the greatest person that ever lived.

If i exist at all it’s only in the sense of a sub-atomic particle, winking into being for a minuscule instant and winking out again. A flickering speck of smoke.

Others, on the other hand, do exist. Mankind as a species is growing up, becoming something it was not before. Over time as we mix with machines to form an extremely long-lived, super-intelligent super-organism, we stand a chance at getting out, growing into new, unknown things. Becoming part of a universal community.

Everything we have and do now is created by others. Others will cure cancer, others will write great books, others build great cities, others make important observations. Other people — other beings — do and experience everything of importance.

Other people, in the general sense, are very real. i am not.

Philosophy should be left to old and ornery people like me, not given out to teenagers and unexperienced kids like candy. Why? Because philosophy is having a beer with a really smart person. When you’re young you tend to idolize them. You use philosophy as some sort of tool for finding out ultimate truths. You think of it in the same way as you do the other subjects you are studying. You think philosophy is going somewhere in a straight line, like physics or math. Ultimately you become very disappointed.

When you’re older, philosophy is like a suit of clothes: you don’t take it so seriously. You try on whatever seems to be comfortable and convenient at the time. Life is too short to go down in the weeds with all this bullshit, but it can still be lots of fun to kick around new deep concepts, or to take old ones and put them together to synthesize new ones.

Most philosophers had a handful of good ideas and spent the rest of their life taking those ideas too far. (i exclude Socrates from this because he obviously felt he didn’t know anything and that questions were more important than answers) Give a young person too much philosophy? You’ve either created somebody without any footing in reality or a sad, closed-minded cynic.

So yes, for all intents and purposes, i either do not exist at all, or exist in only the most microscopic of terms, virtually indistinguishable from nothingness. But I still own my choices, and from that comes joy.

Fundamentalist agnosticism, existentialism, anti-solipsism. It’s not “duty, honor, country“, but it’ll do for now.

Stephen Hawking’s new book begins “Philosophy is dead”, but Stephen is still smoking from that old cynical physicist’s crack pipe. Philosophy, like God before it, is not dead, it’s just getting started.

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Back to the Darkness

In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. – Bertrand Russell

I haven’t been blogging much lately, and it all has to do with flying. Fifteen years ago a 22-year-old kid at the airport told me something that’s been resonating with me ever since.

In my mid 30s, I had decided to learn to fly. So I went to the airport, where I met a young flight instructor. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. He asked me about my desire to fly. Immediately I went through a list of things I’d like to do — first I’d like to learn how to navigate, and then I’d like to try out landing on grass strip, and then….

“Hold on a second there, hoss,” he said, “Right now you don’t even know what you don’t know.”

As I learned to fly, first as a private pilot, then getting my instrument, commercial, tailwheel, high-performance, and complex ratings (including trying out twins, seaplanes, and stunt planes, among other things) I thought a lot about what he said: I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

He was right.

His point was that while I was very aware of what I’d like to do in terms an outsider would understand, I had no domain experience at all in aviation, aside from watching a few movies and being a passenger. It’s not just that I didn’t know the questions, I wouldn’t understand the questions, wouldn’t understand what they meant, what the answers might mean, or how the questions fit together. There was no basis for us to have an intelligent conversation.

So we spent a lot of time doing things not on my list: flying slow, approaching a stall, reading METARs, talking about maps, talking about priorities in an emergency (aviate, navigate, communicate), talking about all sorts of domain concepts, talking and learning. We created a common model understood overtly, tacitly, and functionally from which we could start to have a conversation.

You see, I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was right in a way, but in a more important way I was worse than ignorant — an ignorant person can be taught, he simply needs to be exposed to information — I was a stranger in a strange land. I was just some guy with a boatload of terms and stories that all kind of fit together in my world-view but had little credence in his — even though the terms were the same. First I had to learn and be able to physically and symbolically manipulate concepts about what I didn’t know, aviation, and then we could start talking about what I’d like to know.

The reason I haven’t blogged much lately because I am beginning to feel that the vast majority of what we say and do in the world is horribly incomplete. We’re all like kindergarteners to somebody else. We don’t know what we don’t know. This has very mportant consequences

This may have been meant as a political sidestep,
but is there something very profound here as well?

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The Existential Jesus

book cover for Existential Jesus

What was the first-written book of the New Testament?

If you answered “Matthew”, you might want to read up a bit on what scholars currently know about the bible.

Most scholars believe First Thessalonians was the first book in the New Testament written. What about the Gospels? Is Matthew the first Gospel written? Wrong again. The first gospel written is widely believed to be Mark. Mark — without the extra verses tacked on at the end — is considered one of the best sources we have of what early Christians had for a bible.

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DGE Review 4: Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart D. Ehrman

(This is the fourth in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

What would the Bible, the Christian’s holy book, look like if it were dissected by critical historians? That’s the question Bart Ehrman asks in his book “Jesus Interrupted”

It’s not a flattering sight.

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DGE Review 3: Atheist Delusions, by David Bentley Hart

(This is the third in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

“The problem with those Christians,” my friend told me one night, “is that they want to run all of our lives. I’m gay, and they even want to tell me I can’t get married!”

I’ve had this discussion, or ones like it, many times before. There’s usually some initial charge that involves current politics, like opposition to gay marriage, or abortion. Then “the list” comes out. We all know “the list” by now: the crusades, burning of the Pagan temples, the Thirty Year’s War, trials for witchcraft and sorcery, and my favorite, The Inquisition (which Mel Brooks made into a wonderful musical, by the way)

This video is much too silly for this article,
but the song is stuck in my head. Now it can be stuck in yours!

The conclusion is then “Christianity brings out the worst in people” or better yet “religion is a meme”. It seems very fashionable among modern authors to go down the list, often at great length, in order to draw the conclusion that all religion is a sort of evolutionary hangover that mankind suffers from. Once we completely free ourselves from such superstitious silliness, only then will we able to move forward together.

David Bentley Hart is having none of it.

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Summer Smackdown: Battle For God Intensifies

Wanted some kind of fun project this summer while I am finishing up this big contract, and I thought it would be cool to do a “Battle for God” series of reading.

The rules are simple: Select 7 or 8 books. Some books will support belief in the existence of God. Some will not. Each author gets between 8 and 12 hours of my time to make their case. At the end, I’ll recap my conclusions for the entire series.

In a way this is kind of a rigged game for me, since I’m of the belief that God as the Great Unknowable is real. Now God as some specific version of some dogma is another thing entirely. But I’ll try to keep an open mind about the entire thing. If nothing else it will be an interesting insight into how people think about infinity.

What are the books, you ask?

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